by Rami Henrich, LCSW
Lately, I have been thinking a great deal about identity and aging. Now, several years beyond 65, I think about the future, about who I have been and who I will be. I feel that I have lived many identities…woman, mother, partner, psychotherapist, teacher, colorist, designer, freedom lover, daughter, sister, polyamorist etc. But who am I really? I notice that these identities float around but that some stick around over time. How is it that these identities come to be and why is it that they get rigid in my and others’ thinking?
Arnold Mindell, founder of Processwork (aka Process-oriented Psychology), a paradigm that informs my psychotherapy practice, speaks about identity in his book, The Shaman’s Body (1993). In it he says, ” Buddhist teachings, shamanistic rituals, and simply the process of aging imply that your personal identity will soon disappear. Personal history is your identity, the role you have in a given community and world…Your identity limits you by forcing you into a social role or mold needed by your community.” Identity is given to you. He goes on to say, “It seems sometimes as if you have just one central lesson to learn: to continuously drop all sorts of rigid identities.”
How do we do this, drop identities? Sometimes life forces it upon us, near death, loss of loved ones, changes in health, the sudden realization that I am different than I always thought myself to be. But Mindell suggests that we can let go of our identities more consciously.
One afternoon I was sitting in my yard reflecting on my life, the past, the present, but mostly about the future. My “worrier” identity was in full gear with my inner voice churning around fears around aging and not having enough…enough money, enough friends, enough work, enough free time, enough engagement in community, enough contact with family, enough enough enough! As I sat there fretting, I noticed a robin sitting in her nest in a red bud tree in my yard, just sitting.
Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, the wind picked up with strong gusts tossing chairs about on the deck. I looked up at the robin who seemed nonplussed by the sudden change in weather with gusts causing tree limbs to sway rather violently, lifting up, slamming down, shifting side to side. She just sat there bouncing to the rhythm of the wind. I was in awe of her. She just sat there going with the gusts, undisturbed and undeterred in her just sitting. As I watched her I thought, what would it be like to be her? What would it be like to shift my identity from Rami, the worrier, to “mama robin”? What would it be like to just sit and let the breezes blow me, to be able to just go with whatever came along in life?
I closed my eyes and imagined that I was her sitting there on that nest. Soon, I forgot myself and in my imagination I became her. I felt the gusts, that I was being moved by the wind, that I was nature, not a human being separate from it. As robin, I was along for the ride, I was lifted, swayed, bounced, in nature’s amusement park. I felt that my identity had shifted from me, Rami, to mama robin for a few moments. Sitting up there on that branch I could see Rami sitting on the deck with all of her concerns about time, money, family, aging etc. Robin had a message for Rami. She said, ” Rami relax, get on board with nature, with life as she presents herself, sometimes a gentle breeze, at other times a strong gust.” She told Rami that she might enjoy her life more if she could be more robin-like, that is to recognize that she is a part of nature, not separate from it.
That was an amazing moment for me, the me who identifies as mom, partner, therapist, worrier etc. I realized that I was also the robin, the nest, the branch, the tree, the wind and so much more. It seems that conscious shifting or letting go of identities first requires awareness of them, and then the interest in altering or letting go of them. After the robin experience, I thought about the fluidity and the rigidity of identity, how it is created by the past, by others’ expectations and not set in stone. Perhaps, you and I, are stuck with certain identities that keep us from recognizing other aspects of ourselves.
Thinking along these lines I wondered about the need to identify as straight or queer, polyamorous or monogamous, male or female, or the need to identify at all. Identity…a rich topic to consider. How do you identify, and who do you say you are or are not? Perhaps if we stretch our minds a bit we can find the “other” in me, and me in the “other.”